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A production in Brooklyn blows our expectations apart
Even if you've never seen it, A Streetcar Named Desire manages to seep into your brain. Without even trying, you end up knowing quotes and stage pictures simply because pop culture references them all the time.
As you probably know on some level, the show follows a southern belle named Blanche DuBois who flees her crumbling life to stay with her sister Stella in New Orleans. That's where she meets Stanley Kowalski, Stella's husband, whose brutishness collides with her delicate instability in devastating ways.
Received notions about the play can make it seem gentle and gauzy, like a sighing ode to lost Southern decorum. The play itself, however, blows that picture apart.
Take the first time I saw Streetcar, as part of a festival in Riga, Latvia. It was performed in Latvian, and instead of supertitles, foreign audience members wore in-ear devices while a woman in a booth behind us translated all the roles. I was delighted and surprised to hear quotes I didn't realize I already knew, dictated in a flat, dispassionate Eastern European accent. Lines like "I don't want realism, I want magic," and "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers," acquired new shades when whispered in the former Eastern bloc.
Seeing a Latvian Streetcar felt revolutionary because the language and setting were far from my hazy and clichéd idea of what a Tennessee Williams play is. But you don't have to travel to Europe to be shaken up. You can just go to Brooklyn, where director Benedict Andrews is helming his version of the show at St. Ann's Warehouse. Starring Gillian Anderson as Blanche and Ben Foster as Stanley, the staging reminds us that even in a more traditional context, Streetcar is as radical and relevant today as it was when it premiered in 1947.
"With all due respect to other productions, Streetcar more often than not feels mothballed—like a museum piece of 'great literature' infused with nostalgia and a fantasized notion of New Orleans," Andrews says. "A well-behaved, traditional production often gives us a false notion of fidelity to the original play that wasn't there. Arthur Miller said of Streetcar, 'It's a cry of pain, and to forget that is to forget the play.' We didn't want to make some toothless tiger."
So instead, Andrews and company give the play fangs. Audiences sit around an open set, so we can easily peer at the goings-on, even when a diaphanous curtain separates the Kowalskis' bedroom and kitchen.
Plus, the stage turns in a slow circle throughout most of the production. As our sightlines constantly shift, so does our sense of where we are and what we're witnessing.
Andrews first developed the revolving set concept in a 2008 production he made in Germany. "I think of it as a brute, rough charcoal sketch of the current show," he says. "Blanche was spinning on an empty stage into her descent, but there were no doors to slam. There wasn't a two-room apartment. We didn't bring naturalism to it."
In the current show, however, which was staged at London's Young Vic in 2014, Andrews fuses a naturalistic studio apartment with both the turning stage and a tall metal staircase that attaches and detaches, depending on where the set is in its rotation.
That staircase speaks to the overall vision of the design: Sometimes it's a passage to the world outside the apartment, and sometimes it's a passage to nowhere, inaccessible and imposing. "A lot of productions favor the inside world, but you lose the porous boundary between inside and outside that way," Andrews says. "That porousness that Williams gives us is actually quite radical."
The spinning set resonates in other ways as well. In a literal sense it shows us Blanche's disorientation; the apartment begins to rotate the moment she takes her first drink. "It's a provocation to the audience to feel her space," Andrews explains.
At the same time, he adds, the turning world "implicates the viewer in a special voyeuristic way, and it complicates the realism."
Andrews wants this design to reflect how Streetcar itself straddles genres. "On the concrete level you have a real smell, the inhabitants have concrete problems with class and race and history. But on the mythic level it's a purgatory for Blanche, who is passing into the next circle of hell – where we goes with the doctor."
He continues, "With any play, whether it's new or old, you want to plug into the core nervous system and make it immediate and raw and visceral. Maybe I'm liberated from old ideas about the play because I worked on it first in German and didn't have to worry about how it sounded."
Whatever the reason, he has certainly made a Streetcar that feels urgent and immediate and present – never a thing of the past.
Eliza Bent is a writer and performer based in Brooklyn.
Photos by Teddy Wolff. Top photo: Ben Foster and Gillian Anderson.